Women’s vs Men’s Faces According to Infants

I have been a nanny for six years, and have worked with four children from the time they were infants. The earliest infant I started with was a mere two months old. Though it seems as if they have a very limited understanding of, well, really anything- they can already “demonstrate a visual preference for faces” (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). This is just the beginning stages of categorization in infants, particularly in the fusiform face area, responsible for responding specifically to faces (Goldstein 2011, pp. 260).

When I began with Ally* she was one week shy of three months. I also cared for another eight month old girl who was dropped off at Ally’s house. On the first day, I held Ally for the first time as her mother made her way back to work. She looked at me with wide eyes, and I could tell she was studying my face. Generally, at around two months of age, “more sophisticated categorization begins to appear” (Goldstein 2011, pp. 263). Based on repeated findings using the familiarization/novelty preference procedure, Ally was likely grouping my novel, or new, face into the category of “other women” as opposed to the category of “mother” (Goldstein 2011, pp. 263).

When the eight month old’s father, John*, came to pick her up from Ally’s house, he was interested in meeting Ally. I gently handed her to John. Ally studied his face like she studied mine, and suddenly began to whimper. “Infants are more proficient at categorizing and processing female than male faces” according to Cornell (1974), Leinbach & Fagot (1993), Younger & Fearing (1999) (infantlab.fiu.edu). Ally must have felt less comfortable after studying John’s face because she was not as easily able to categorize him.

According to the article presented on infantlab.edu, by Ramsey, Langlois and Marti, one would believe that in all cases it is primitive for an infant to have an “advantage in processing female faces.” Contrastingly, in a scholarly article which appears in the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Heath, this claim is not supported. According to this article, the infantile ability to demonstrate categorization and processing of a certain gender’s faces is actually a result of who the infant is “raised primarily by” (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). By these findings, the reason Ally was seemingly made uncomfortable by John’s face, but not mine, is likely because her mother had been her caregiver each day before I became her nanny at nearly three months of age. In addition to her ability to more easily categorize female faces, “infants raised primarily by a female caregiver demonstrate a preference for female faces over male faces” (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). So, by these findings, Ally would also prefer to see female faces across the board than male faces.

Though there exist conflicting theories on how exactly infants develop preferences and a proficiency in discriminating one gender’s face over another, none of this would be possible without the ability for an infant’s fusiform face area to categorize faces. I think it is amazing how quickly the human mind adapts and learns to the present environment.

Sources Cited:

Ge, L. Gibson, A. Kelly, D. Pascalis, O. Quinn, P. Slater, A. Smith, M. (2005). Three-Month-Olds, but Not Newborns, Prefer Own Race Faces. (NIHMSID: NIHMS69295). Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2566511/

Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Langlois, J. Marti, N. Ramsey, J. (2005). Infant Categorization of Faces: Ladies First. (Developmental Review 25 (2005) 212–246) Austin, TX. Retrieved from: http://infantlab.fiu.edu/Articles/Ramsey,%20Langlois%20et%20al%202005%20Dev%20Rev.pdf

2 thoughts on “Women’s vs Men’s Faces According to Infants

  1. Courtney Elizabeth Sylvester

    Reading about your experiences as a nanny was fascinating. I really got the sense that you were watching as the child determined cognitive categories! You went into excellent detail about how babies distinguish between male and female faces and prefer the gender of their primary caregiver, but did you know the contact hypothesis also applies to race?

    Babies as young as 3 months show a preference for faces of people from the race to which they’re most often exposed (Kelly et al., 2005; Bar-Haim et al., 2006), and this preference narrows even further by 9 months, as their processing and recognition narrows to only that race (Kelly et al., 2007; Heron-Delaney et al., 2011). Most often, the preferred race is the same as the race of the infant and his family, hence the name “own-race bias,” but I worded my sentence in such an awkward way because the effect depends entirely on which groups of people the infant is most in contact with.

    The own-race bias begins in infancy and carries throughout life, from how a face is processed to how well a person recognizes someone else’s facial expressions and emotion (Vogel et al., 2012; Heron-Delaney, 2011). This phenomenon, like the gender preference you mentioned, is not present in newborns, suggesting it is a learned behavior (Kelly et al., 2005). But as a learned behavior, this bias can be changed. Infants who come in contact with more people from different races have a reduced preference for own-race faces, and this exposure need be little more than pictures in a book (Chiroro & Valentine, 1995; Heron-Delaney et al., 2011). If all else fails, a nasal spritz of oxytocin can eliminate own-race bias (Blandon-Gitlin et al., 2013), once again proving that own-race bias is not innate and something we can change.


    Bar-Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., & Hodes, R.M. (2006). Nature and nurture in own-race face processing. Psychological Science, 17.2, p. 159-163. Retrieved from http://infantlab.fiu.edu/Articles/Bar-Haim,%20Zov%20et%20al%20PSYSci%202006.pdf

    Blandon-Gitlin, I., Pezdek, K., Saldivar, S., & Steelman, E. (2013). Oxytocin eliminates the own-race bias in face recognition memory. Brain Research. Retrieved from http://cgu.edu/PDFFiles/sbos/pezdek%202014/Blandon-Gitlin_Pezdek_Saldivar_Steelman_2014.pdf

    Chiroro, P., & Valentine, T. (1995). An investigation of the contact hypothesis of the own-race bias in face recognition [Abstract]. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 48.4, p. 879-894. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14640749508401421

    Heron-Delaney, M., Anzures, G., Herbert, J.S., Quinn, P.C., Slater, A.M., Tanaka, J.W., Lee, K., & Pascalis, O. (2011). Perceptual training prevents the emergence of the other race effect during infancy. PLoS One, 5.6. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0019858

    Kelly, D.J., Quinn, P.C., Slater, A.M., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., Ge, L., & Pascalis, O. (2005). Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Developmental Science, 8.6, p. F31-F36. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2566511/

    Kelly, D.J., Quinn, P.C., Slater, A.M., Lee, K., Ge, L., & Pascalis, O. (2007). The other-race effect develops during infancy: Evidence of perceptual narrowing. Psychological Science, 18.12, p. 1084-1089. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2566514/

    Vogel, M., Monesson, A., & Scott, L.S. (2012). Building biases in infancy: The influence of race on face and voice emotion matching. Developmental Science, p. 1-14. Retrieved from http://people.umass.edu/lscott/publications/DevSci.pdf

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